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Cable Ship History

Samuel F. B. Morse, while a professor of arts and design at New York University in 1835, proved that signals could be transmitted by wire. Five years later that Congress -- reflecting public apathy -- funded $30,000 to construct an experimental telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore, a distance of 40 miles. The message, "What hath God wrought?" sent later by "Morse Code" from the old Supreme Court chamber in the United States Capitol to his partner in Baltimore, officially opened the completed line of May 24, 1844.

Prof. S. F. B. Morse experimented with the first cable between Castle Garden and Governors Island, in New York harbor, in 1842. In 1840 Prof. Charles Wheatstone laid before the House of Commons a scheme for connecting Dover and Calais by a telegraph cable laid under the waters of the channel. The English consequently give him credit for originating submarine cables. But an examination of his report shows that his conception of the undertaking was very crude and that his ideas were far from being matured enough to prove of any practical value.

The first submarine cable of the world laid across any part of the open sea was operated in 1850. Ten years after Professor Wheatstones scheme was presented to the House of Commons the first open sea cable was laid. Dover and Calais were connected for a few hours by telegraph. Then for some reason communication was interrupted, and a new cable had to be laid the following year.

In Cyrus W. Field proceeded from Canada to London to organize a new company for the purpose of laying the first Atlantic Ocean cable. On August 7, 1857, the United States frigate Niagara sailed from Valentia, Ireland, trailing the long cable behind her, and laying it in position as she proceeded. But when about four hundred miles out the first of the series of accidents which cbaracterized this gigantic enterprise happened, and matters were delayed for a whole year. The cable parted in mid-ocean, and the steamer had to return.

The next venture, made in 1858, was undertaken by two steamers, H. M. S. Agarnemnon starting with one portion of the cable, and the Niagara with the other half. The two vessels were to meet in mid-ocean and splice the cable. In the second attempt the cable broke; but the third time the steamers left port the cable was strung across the ocean, and America and Europe were united by telegraphic communication in August 1858. In less than a month the joy was turned into grief. The cable refused to work, and the best electrical experts could not ascertain the cause.

The Great Eastern was chartered to lay the cable, and on July 23, 1865, work was begun. The first attempt failed, but a new cable was ordered, and on July 27, 1866, the Great Eastern finished laying it across the ocean, and soon thereafter the first cable was retrieved and successfully completed. With her huge size (22,000 GRT), the 'Great Eastern' (1858) was the only steamship large enough to carry the single length of telegraph cable needed to span the Atlantic Ocean. From 1865 to 1872 she laid four such telegraph cables under the Atlantic.

By 1900, in less than fifty years, about 1,222 separate and distinct ocean cables had been laid, with an aggregate length of 175,000 miles, sufficient to girdle the earth seven times, and representing a total expense of nearly two hundred millions of dollars. By 1900 twelve distinct cables crossed the North Atlantic Ocean, binding Europe to America more effectually than a thousand regular lines of ocean steamers, and making separation from the nations of the Old World either by accident or otherwise almost an impossibility.

Ocean cables were operated by repeating the messages along the route. In 1921, "regenerators" were developed for direct transmission between terminals. Less than 300 single letters a minute could be sent over the original transatlantic cable. Later new "permalloy" cables raised that capacity to about 2,400 letters a minute.

Until 1877, all rapid long-distance communication depended upon the telegraph. That year, a rival technology developed that would again change the face of communication -- the telephone. In 1877, construction of the first regular telephone line from Boston to Somerville, Massachusetts were completed. By 1879, patent litigation between Western Union and the infant telephone system was ended in an agreement that largely separated the two services. By the end of 1880, there were 47,900 telephones in the United States.

The first transatlantic telephone cable connecting Newfoundland with England was opened in 1956. Later that year a submarine telephone cable from the State of Washington to Alaska was put into operation. Hawaii was linked by telephone cable with the mainland in 1957, and a telephone cable to France began operating in 1959.

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